Lord Ashcroft is wrong to claim that the dramatic reductions in child mortality over the past 15 years have little to do with aid budgets, says Rob Williams, chief executive of War Child.
In fact millions of children in the developing world are alive today because of international investments in health care systems and education across the developing world. This is fact not fiction. A more interesting question is how this serves the UK's national interest?
As a trading nation we need as many nations as possible to be in a position to trade with us. As a democracy committed to open systems of government we need as many nations as possible to be peaceful, and to function well enough to prevent radical extremism to take root and breed hostility towards us. As an economy dependent on imports for food, power, and raw materials we have a vested interest in the stability and development of countries where we can access what we need in return for what we can sell.
Aid has its limitations. Ultimately a nation's future is in the hands of its people We now understand that we cannot deliver democracy entirely through aid budgets but we also know that education and good health make democracy much more likely to take root in developing countries. Aid is about facilitating change and will never do everything we would like it to on its own. Aid involves difficult choices. Whether to support government budgets in Ethiopia whilst also working to improve human rights in that country is open to criticism from those who are determined to overlook the increased stability this policy has brought to the Horn of Africa – a region which twenty years ago was as close to total meltdown as any in the world today. Left to itself Ethiopia would have struggled to make any progress and to contain the spread of mayhem from its border with Somalia.
Aid practitioners has a long history of digging up the evidence about what works and what doesn't and opening up the failures to debate and learning. They do this because they care about the ultimate outcomes of aid budgets. This can be misunderstood by casual observers such as Lord Ashcroft, who assume that discussion of aid failures imply that all aid is misplaced. It is vitally important that the learning about how aid can be more more effective is not shut down through fear of fuelling the critics of aid itself.
Some of the places where UK aid is spent are difficult to explain to the British public. Sending money to India, whilst it develops its own space programme, gives a cheap shot to aid critics. This does not mean that DfID should stop trying to help poor people in India. It does mean that we need to explain better the ethical and practical case.
It is in Britain's interest to see struggling countries progress to well governed and productive societies filled with literate and hopeful citizens well disposed towards us. It is true that the long term benefits of aid can only be appreciated if one adopts a time scale longer than the next election. Lord Ashcroft appears to think that abandoning the promise of peaceful development and increased national security is a small price to pay for some electoral advantage. I believe that this is a grave misjudgement made worse by comparisons to budgets for libraries and benefits. A better comparison would be to ask whether the relatively small amounts we spend on aid do more for our national security and future trading prosperity than the large amounts of money we spend on military budgets.